I’ve had the opportunity to spend a lot of time recently up on the Blue Ridge Parkway conducting natural history workshops for the North Carolina Arboretum. Mid-July is the peak period for high-elevation wildflowers. I can report that the flowering season this year is outstanding, especially along that section of the parkway between Waterrock Knob and Mt. Pisgah. If you have an opportunity to drive up there and look around, do so.
An article by Jon Ostendorff headed “Rare fish released into Oconaluftee River” appeared in this past Monday’s edition of the Asheville Citizen-Times. It caught my eye because of an ongoing general interest in the fish found in Western North Carolina waters as well as a particular interest in the methods utilized by the ancient Cherokees to capture and process them as a food source.
Few people want to get close enough to observe the attractive flowers that kudzu produces. The plant probably won’t actually reach out and grab you — but then again, it might.
One of the many kudzu jokes that has emerged in the southeastern United States since its introduction goes, “If you’re going to plant kudzu, drop it and run.” There’s a certain logic in this piece of advice since the “mile-a-minute vine” grows as much as 12 inches in 24 hours and up to 50 feet in a single season.
Sometimes it’s difficult to draw the line between the natural and cultivated plant worlds. As cultivated plants escape they often establish themselves as part of our regional flora. My wife, Elizabeth, and I are particularly fond of those old-fashioned garden flowers that persist about abandoned homesteads. Sometimes the only evidence of former habitation will be the mute testimony offered by the gray foundation stones of the cabin and a scattered array of old-fashioned garden flowers.
It’s starting to become the goldenrod time of the year. Goldenrods — like asters, thistles, cosmos, zinnias, daisies, coneflowers, dahlias, sunflowers, ragworts, hawkweeds, etc. — belong to the vast “Asteraceae” family that numbers almost 20,000 species worldwide, with over 300 native and introduced species of the family here in the Southern Appalachians. In this family, the flower-like heads often consist of a conglomerate of tiny central flowers that form a disk.
When a street was being cut in front of the new county administration building here in Bryson City back in the 1980s, a large foreign-looking tree could well have been felled in the name of progress. But resident R.P. Jenkins convinced authorities to pave a sidewalk around the tree so that it still stands at the corner of Mitchell and Everett streets as a representative of what has been rightfully called “a living fossil.”
Let’s suppose that you intentionally or unintentionally insult someone; after all, that’s something that does happen from time to time. You deal with it by apologizing or refusing to apologize. There may be words. The possibility of a little fisticuffs isn’t beyond the realm of possibility; after all, if push comes to shove ... well, that happens ... somebody gets a bloody nose or black eye ... no big deal.
Numerous geologists have visited the Smokies region. None was more observant than Arthur Keith.
The Murphy Marble Belt is an elongated, lens-shaped mass of marble and related sedimentary materials up to three miles wide that extends in a crescent from northwestern Georgia into Cherokee and Swain counties. This lens also contains talc, limestone, soapstone, and calcareous soils. The first two materials are still mined at the Nantahala Talc and Limestone Co. in the Nantahala Gorge. But it was marble that was once the linchpin of the area’s mining interests.
The creeks and streams of the Southern Highlands are one of the most exciting natural areas we have. Unlike most upland habitats — which generally occur as blocks or patches or elevational zones — streams form winding corridors that afford varied niches for plants and animals that can’t adapt to a linear lifestyle.
I sometimes have occasion to drive Interstate 81 up the Great Valley of Tennessee and Virginia to Washington, D.C. As soon as I pass out of Western North Carolina into the terrain north of Knoxville, the dominant tree along the roadside becomes red cedar. Spread throughout abandoned fields and clinging to the narrow ledges of rock outcrops, they flicker like green torches for hundreds of miles. I can never get enough of limestone country or the stands of red cedar that flourish there. And I never cease to wonder at the variety of shapes the tree can display within a short distance.
One of the more interesting and entertaining early descriptive accounts of the southern mountains is contained in a diary kept by surveyor John Strother. In 1799, he was appointed one of the surveyors for determining a portion of the boundary between Tennessee and North Carolina.
According to the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 5 (UNC Press, 1994), Strother was born in Culpepper County, Va. After becoming a surveyor, he traveled in the mid-1780s to Georgia, where he became involved in a plan to secure a large tract of land at Muscle Shoals in the Bend of the Tennessee River. When that didn’t work out, he moved to southeastern North Carolina. By 1795, he was surveying and mapping lands there totaling more than 850,000 acres owned by John Gray Blount. He subsequently surveyed and mapped other holding throughout the Piedmont region of the state and the eastern fringe of the Blue Ridge. He was apparently living in Asheville at the time of his death in 1815.
Samuel J. Hunnicutt was one of the original characters of the Smokies region before the Great Smoky Mountains National Park was founded in 1934. He is far less well known than Quill Rose, Horace Kephart, or Mark Cathey, but he was in their mold: eccentric, amusing and competent in all things having to do with outdoor life.
No late summer wildflower is more widely recognized than evening primrose. The four broad yellow petals that open in the evening and often linger into mid-morning on overcast days are a dead giveaway. If you’re looking for the plant, you won’t have to venture any farther than the first disturbed area in your neighborhood.
The walnut trees along the creek where we live are exhibiting a bumper crop this year. At night we are starting to hear their fruits dropping with heavy thuds on the ground or like depth charges into the water. Hopefully, one of them won’t conk me on the head when I’m working in the yard.
It’s mid-September ... late summer is sliding toward early autumn. The end of summer officially arrives with the autumnal equinox of Sept. 23, when the sun crosses the celestial equator going north to south.
One senses this transition in the cool mist-shrouded mornings as well as by the brown-splotched and red-tinged leaves of the buckeye trees. Communal groups of swallows will soon be gathering on wires and branches prior to their annual southerly migration. Before long, monarch butterflies will be skipping with ease along the Appalachian chain headed for their ancestral wintering grounds in Mexico.
The late summer wildflower season has arrived. Along roadsides and woodland edges some of our more robust native plants are now coming into full bloom. By “robust” I mean high growing and stout. These would include wild lettuce, common mullein, Joe Pye weed, green-headed coneflower, bull thistle, various species of woodland sunflowers, crown beard, boneset, white snakeroot, New York ironweed, cardinal flower, and many others.
I recently received an email from a reader who asked, “Could you write about the sweet bubby bush? That’s the only name I know it by. Old plant, my mom loves it. I’d like to plant one. Haven’t seen it in a long time.”
When I was growing up in the tobacco-farming portion of the southern Virginia piedmont, there were many haunted outbuildings throughout the region. My friends and I knew they were haunted because we would nightly, from early spring into early fall, hear ungodly shrieks and hisses emanating from them. My Uncle Will smoked his pipe and told us stories about the “monkey demons in the rafters.”
Dogs have been a part of my life since I was a boy. My first dog — part one thing, part another — was named Rascal. I was a sophomore in college when Rascal had to be put to sleep.
Other dogs have followed: cocker spaniels; a long line of beagles, several named Toby; and more recently German shorthaired pointers. Shorthairs are the best breed of dog in the world. I will allow that they can be somewhat uppity and arrogant, when need be, but for the most part they are companionable, curious, bright-eyed, humorous, and generally reliable dogs.
The fall wildflower season has arrived. Along roadsides and woodland edges some of our more robust native plants are now coming into full bloom. By “robust” I mean high growing and stout. These would include wild lettuce, common mullein, Joe Pye weed, green-headed coneflower, bull thistle, various species of woodland sunflowers, crown beard, boneset, white snakeroot, New York ironweed, cardinal flower, and others.
Some trees that might be difficult to locate during the spring through fall foliage season become more apparent in winter. This is the instance with sweetgum, which holds its leaves into early winter after most other deciduous trees have shed theirs. Into mid-December, the lovely reds, pinks, and clear yellows that signal the species stand out alongside roadways and on adjacent slopes. A drive on Western North Carolina’s highways at this time will turn up more sweetgum locations than one could ever detect during the rest of the year.
The various relationships that exist between plants and animals are fascinating. My view of wildflower ecology is dominated by the specific pollination requirements of a given plant. Insect pollination is usually a two-way exchange in which the insect benefits as much as the plant. One achieves fertilization while the other obtains precious energy stores.
As I write this on Monday morning, we’ve just had our initial hard frost of the year here in Swain County. For the first time in seven or so months, I had to dig around and find my windshield scraper. While scraping away at the windshield with nearly frozen hands, I heard the birds in our backyard calling to one another as they trundled back and forth from the shrubbery to the feeders. They seemed excited that cold weather was finally arriving.
Due to the virtual absence of wind and rain, the fall color season is lingering with us. But winter weather and the descent of the leaves will come soon enough. Right now is a good time to keep on paying attention to them. Their autumnal color changes and graceful flight to the forest floor are but one phase in a year-round cycle that is among the most ignored, important, and intriguing occurrences in the natural world: the creation of leaf litter.
If you’ve been getting out in the woods at all lately, you’re aware that it’s been an especially good season for chipmunks; indeed, perhaps because of the late frosts and dry weather, it’s been a chipmunk kind of fall. They seem to be everywhere, and with their incessant chattering series of chips, chucks, and squeals they’re all but impossible to ignore.
Naturalists are always being quizzed about this or that. Turn about is fair play. So, are you ready for a natural history quiz? Here are 20 questions related to the natural history of the southern mountains. My answers are given at the end. Don’t peek.
When late November finally arrives, my wife, Elizabeth, and I go into another mode. Her busy season in the gallery-studio she operates here on the town square in Bryson City pretty much comes to an end. The Elderhostel programs, workshops and lectures that keep me on the road from mid-March into November come to an abrupt halt. From now until early spring we get to spend more time together at our home place in a little cove four miles west of town. Winter is our time of the year.
Green used to be the color that caught my eye. Now it’s blue. So much so that I wrote an ode (of sorts) to the color blue that is in my book Permanent Camp. It goes like this:
As cool dark nights descend upon us to signal the onset of winter, the great horned owls have commenced their annual “singing” along the dark ridges above our home. These great birds don’t sing, of course, in the manner of true songbirds like warblers and orioles — but the quick cadence of four or five hoots (“hoo, hoo-oo, hoo, hoo”) given by the male, or the lower-pitched six to eight hoots (“hoo, hoo-hoo-hoo, hoo-oo, hoo-oo”) of the female serve the same purpose.
Here in the southern mountains there are magical habitats to be explored in every direction and at every elevation. Periglacial boulderfields are among the most unique of these. I learned about them some years ago when I happened upon this description in Charles E. Roe’s A Directory to North Carolina’s Natural Areas (Raleigh: N.C. Natural Heritage Foundation, 1987):
Every few years, there will be a bumper crop of long flat strap-shaped honey locust pods, many up to two inches wide and a foot or more in length. Hanging in abundance along roadsides, they always bring back childhood memories.
There are more than 300,000 plant species in the world. Some are edible, some can be used for their medicinal properties, and many are poisonous. The latter category is defined by Nancy J. Turner and Adam F. Szczawinski in Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms of North America (Portland, Oregon: Timber Press, 1991) as “plants and parts of plants that contain potentially harmful substances in high enough concentrations to cause chemical injury if touched or swallowed.”
The second soul, that of physiological life, is located in the liver, and is of primary importance in doctoring and in conjuring. This soul is a substance, is not anthropomorphic in any, has no individuality, and is quantitative, there is more or less of it. Its secretions are yellow bile, black bile, gastric juice, etc. Destruction of the liver substance produces lassitude, the “yellows” (jaundice or hepatitis, or cirrhosis) or the “black” (deep depression or gall bladder attacks or acute pancreatitis). Exhaustion of the liver substance (absence of the soul) produces physiological death. This soul may be attacked by the conjuror, producing false “yellows” or “black” as “simulation diseases,” reproducing the symptoms of witch-attack, or it may be actually consumed by witches to produce the standard form of liver-gall-pancreas diseases. The witch lengthens its life by extra supplies of liver-soul.
— Frans M. Olbrechts, editor, “The Swimmer Manuscript” (1932).
Cedar waxwings and American holly are with us year round. The waxwings wander around a lot in extended family groups, but they can be spotted in any season here in the Smokies region. Holly trees don’t wander around, of course, but they are evergreen and — unlike deciduous trees — present the same general appearance all of the time. But waxwings and holly don’t really — in my opinion — come into their own until winter. The birds are so named because sexually mature males and females display a waxy-like red spot on each wing that juveniles lack. The first part of their common name indicates their fondness for the fruits that cedar trees bear.
Until I started birding seriously as an adult, I didnÕt know that snipe actually existed. For years that bird was categorized in my mind with other mythic critters that included hoop snakes, side-hill winders, and dragons.
A new book has been published that will be of particular interest to area hunters, outdoorsmen, and dog lovers. It will also be of considerable value to those concerned with the region’s human history.
Our southern mountains are old and relatively sedate when compared with the Himalayas, Rockies, and other “young” mountain ranges. But as any backcountry ranger, hunter, or rescue worker will attest, there’s still plenty of rough, steep and potentially dangerous terrain here.
While scanning the shelves of a rare bookstore in Asheville several months ago, I happened upon a regional volume by Elisha Mitchell I’d been seeking for many years. Titled Diary of a Geological Tour by Dr. Elisha Mitchell in 1827 and 1828,
We are all fascinated by birds. In addition to being pretty (even buzzards are pretty in their own way), they can sing and fly. Unlike me, many of you can actually sing; so, you will not be as awestruck by that capability as I am. But my guess is that few of you can fly, except in your dreams.
Several years ago I wrote about Bradford Torrey’s A World of Green Hills, which was published in 1898 by Houghton Mifflin and Co. The book is divided into two parts, equally devoted to Torrey’s travels in Western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia (Pulaski and Natural Bridge). The North Carolina portion was set primarily on the Highlands Plateau, which he accessed from Walhalla in upcountry South Carolina via a horse- and mule-drawn wagon.
I recently happened upon an interesting article that described an excursion made in 1860 to the Alum Cave on the Tennessee side of the present-day Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Titled “A Week in the Great Smoky Mountains,” it was published in the Southern Literary Messenger, which during an impressive 30-year run (1834-1864) was the South’s most important literary periodical. Published in Richmond, Va., the monthly magazine was edited in its early years by Edgar Allan Poe.
While crossing the Blue Ridge north of present Asheville in the early 1540s, Hernando de Soto’s scribes entered some brief descriptions of the landscape in their journals. In all likelihood, a letter written in 1674 by Abraham Wood, a Virginia merchant and Indian trader, contained the first descriptions of the mountainous terrain of Western North Carolina penned in the English language.
Some plants like Jack-in-the-pulpit and Dutchman’s-pipe have evolved methods of entrapping insects in their flowers so as to assure pollination. But only a few plant species in North America actually devour insects so as to obtain life-giving sustenance. The carnivorous plants of North America that come to mind are the various pitcher plants, sundews, bladderworts, and butterworts, as well as the infamous Venus’ flytrap, known only from the coastal plain of the Carolinas.
Here I sit by my window watching the creek go by with nothing in particular to write about except the random thoughts and voices in my composition book:
“Negative capability is the gift of being in the world without any desire to reconcile contradictory aspects.”
Fiddleheads unfurl from darkness into predisposed patterns of leaves called fronds that are either simple or divided exactly as they should be.
For me, those plants found here in the Smokies region that have verified practical human uses are, in the long run, of more interest than those with often overblown reputations for sacred or medicinal uses. For instance, the history of the common roadside plant Indian hemp is, for me, fascinating, while the lore associated with ginseng — which has reached near-mythic proportions — is somewhat tedious. If you have an interest in plants and have lived in the Smokies region for awhile, it’s probable that you already know all that you need to know about ginseng, while Indian hemp is an equally interesting plant that you perhaps know very little about.
This is about critters and plants that sting and itch. There are lots of things out there in the woods that can cause discomfort or worse: hornets, poison ivy, poisonous serpents, poison sumac, ants, skunks, no-see-ums, and so on. Two that I experience on a regular basis are stinging nettles and yellow jackets.
Long before the first Europeans arrived, the Cherokees developed ceremonials that focused on the spiritual power of running water. When ethnologist James Mooney arrived on the Qualla Boundary in the summer of 1887, those beliefs, which he described as the “The Cherokee River Cult,” were still in place.
Mooney observed that purification in moving water was an integral part of day-to-day life and tribal ceremony. Water dipped from chosen waterfalls was employed on special occasions. Even in winter whole families would go to water at daybreak and stand in prayer before plunging into the cleansing element together.
A couple of weeks ago I wrote about scarlet tanagers, a showy rather common species I assumed most were familiar with. But at least 10 readers emailed or otherwise contacted me to say they had located and seen their first scarlet tanager because I had described their vocalizations. In that regard, let’s see what we can do with rose-breasted grosbeaks.
Season in and season out, one of the more interesting common plants in our woodlands is sassafras, which may be shrub-like or attain heights of 130 feet as part of the forest canopy in rich cove hardwoods.
In spring, well before the leaves unfold, distinctive yellowish flower clusters appear. Like holly, it is dioecious; that is, male and female parts appear on separate plants. Starting in mid-summer, distinctive clusters of fruit appear on female plants, changing from green to blue-black as they ripen. The stalks bearing the fruits are especially distinctive as they enlarge and turn a bright coral red, no doubt as a way of attracting animals to serve as seed distributors.
In fall, the leaves turn a lovely orange or yellow or red, calling attention to their unique patterns. Four distinct shapes can be observed with relative ease, sometimes on the same branch. There are elliptic leaves with no lobes, tri-lobed (three-fingered) leaves, and mitten-shaped leaves with either right-handed or left-handed lobes.
Most growth forms plants display can be readily explained. Thorns discourage grazing animals, as do the acrid substances that a plant might contain. Sticky substances on a flower’s stem keep ground-dwelling insects from robbing the plant’s nectar and pollen. The plant “wants” flying insects to serve as pollinators since they provide the best chance of cross-pollination. And so on. But why have has sassafras “chosen” to display four leaf patterns? There wouldn’t appear to be a sun-exposure advantage — as with plants that alternate leaf placement so as to avoid having upper leaves shading those below.
The first Europeans learned the uses of sassafras from the North American Indians, who as a group rank among the most astute botanical observers of all time. Here in the southern mountains, the Cherokees utilized sassafras tea to purify blood and for a variety of ailments, including skin diseases, rheumatism, and ague. A poultice was made to cleanse wounds and sores, while the root bark was steeped for diarrhea or for “over-fatness” (certainly one of the first weight reduction remedies to hit the market).
In Cherokee Plants, Paul Hamel and Mary Chiltoskey provided the curious notation that sassafras flowers were mixed with beans for planting. I have no idea what purpose that would serve — unless it was as a good luck token; or perhaps, they had discovered a nitrogen-fixing agent.
The plant became the first major forest product shipped to the old world, where it was initially considered to be a wonder drug. Indeed, at the height of the “sassafras craze,” colonists were burdened with a governmental requirement that each man produce 100 pounds of the sassafras per year or be penalized ten pounds of tobacco.
According to Rebecca Rupp’s Red Oaks & Black Birches: The Science and Lore of Trees, sassafras tea was thought to cure scurvy, syphilis and other unpleasant maladies. It was served in London coffeehouses with milk and sugar. Ships with sassafras hulls were reputedly safe from shipwreck; chicken houses with sassafras roosting poles were reputedly free of lice; human bedsteads built from it were reputedly bedbug-less; and so on. Eventually, of course, the bottom fell out of the sassafras market as Europeans and Americans moved on to other faddish and trendy panaceas.
In our time, sassafras is perhaps best known as a tea or soup thickener. The young spring leaves are dried and powdered to thicken soups or stews. It is the “file gumbo” of Creole cooking.
According to Rupp, “The active ingredient in sassafras roots is saffrole, which is a chemical found in lesser amounts in cocoa, nutmeg, black pepper, mace, and cinnamon. Saffrole, once used routinely to flavor commercial root beer, was pulled from the American market in the early 1960s, after experiments showed that it caused liver cancer in rats and mice.
On the other hand, in the “Medicinal Plants” volume in the Peterson field guide series, it’s noted that while the FDA has banned saffrole, “the amount of the substance in a 12-ounce can of old-fashioned root beer is not as carcinogenic as the alcohol (ethanol) in a can of beer.”
In Wildflowers & Plant Communities of the Southern Appalachian Mountains & Piedmont (UNC Press, 2011), Clemson Universary biologist Timothy P. Spira offered additional sassafras commentary: “A good seed crop is produced every 2-3 years. Birds quickly remove the ripe high-fat-content (and high energy) fruits … Sassafras is one of several larval host plants for spicebush swallowtail butterfly … Sassafras is an attractive landscape plant in open sunny areas, but is sensitive to ozone.
There you have it … almost everything anyone would ever want to know about sassafras except two things: (1) Does anyone know why the plant “chooses” to display four distinctive leaf shapes?; and (2) Is there an instrumental on YouTube titled “Sassafras” by Timmy Trumpet and Chardy?
Answers: (1) No; (2) Yes.
“The scarlet tanager flies through the green foliage as if it would ignite the leaves.
You can hardly believe that a living creature can wear such colors.”
— Henry David Thoreau
This seems to be a scarlet tanager kind of year. I’ve been seeing and hearing them at my house, along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and in the Great Smokies. No bird in our region is more striking. Jet black wings on a trim red almost luminescent body, the male is impossible to overlook. And it’s easy to recognize by both song and call.
I almost never encounter the summer tanager (whose entire body is rosy red) in Western North Carolina, but the scarlet tanager is encountered every year — to a greater or lesser extent — during the breeding season (mid-April to mid-October) in mature woodlands (especially slopes with pine and oak) between 2,000 and 5,000 feet in elevation. The bird winters in northwestern South America, where it enjoys the company of various tropical tanagers that do not migrate.
Keep in mind that the female doesn’t resemble her mate except in shape. She is olive-green or yellow-orange in color. Also keep in mind there is a variant form (morph) of the male tanager that is orange rather than scarlet in color. I suspect this variant is the result of something peculiar in its diet. My first and only encounter with an orange scarlet tananger was in the Lake Junaluska area several years ago.
The call note used by both the male and female is a distinctive “chip-burr … chip-burr.” The male’s song is not pretty. He sounds like a robin with a sore throat; that is, the notes in the song are hoarse and raspy. When gathering nesting material, the female sometimes sings a shorter “whisper” song in response to the male’s louder song.
Males in adjacent territories often engage in combative counter-singing and will, as a last resort, go beak-to-beak. On our property, a creek sometimes serves as a boundary — the line drawn in the sand, as it were. The males sing defiantly at one another across the water and sometimes make forays into enemy territory. Meanwhile, the female is busy incubating her eggs. When not squabbling with a nearby male, her mate brings food.